Authors: Norman Ollestad
HE SUMMER BEFORE
the crash my grandmother’s washing machine broke. Grandma and Grandpa Ollestad had retired to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and the inflated prices for appliances in Guadalajara or Mexico City would have strained their budget. Also, renting a truck and picking up a new machine themselves was a major ordeal in those days. So my dad decided he would go to Sears, buy a new washer and haul it down to Vallarta himself. He would borrow Cousin Denis’s black Ford pickup, cross the border in San Diego and cruise the Baja Peninsula highway all the way to La Paz. He’d take the ferry across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlán, which was mainland Mexico, then head farther south through the deep jungles, hitting as many of the rumored surf spots as he could before reaching Vallarta.
Hearing this news made me stiffen with fear. I went silent when my mom explained it all to me on our way home from summer school, where she taught second grade and I was pre
paring for sixth. She didn’t say anything about me having to go but it was in the air—looming—more threatening than if it were a certainty. The idea of baking inside that pickup truck for three or four days and hunting for surf—and worse, finding it and having to paddle out in big waves and float alone out there with just my dad in the vast sea—was not appealing at all. He would be focused on the surf and I would be left to fend for myself. I envisioned my body crushing under the lip of a wave, tossing around, clawing upward, gagging for air.
Mom’s car turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway and I heard the ocean shushing. I was staring at my blue Vans, listening to the Beatles on the eight-track, and I felt carsick and had to look out the window.
We arrived at my mom’s house on Topanga Beach, the southernmost cove in Malibu. The homes were built right on the sand, slapdashed together and teetering at all angles as if shelter were an afterthought, second to the essential need of being on the beach. My dad used to live there also. When I was three he moved across the highway into a cabin on the edge of Topanga Canyon. By the time I was ten I had gathered various tidbits of information, forming a sketchy portrait of what broke up my parents.
Mom complained that sometimes the phone would ring in the middle of the night and Dad would leave without a word and return with no explanation. Mom knew it had to do with Grandpa Ollestad or Uncle Joe, my dad’s half brother, who always needed Dad to save their ass, but Dad wouldn’t talk about it. When Mom protested her exclusion from certain family secrets, my dad just shrugged it off. He would go surfing or simply walk away if my mom persisted. The final straw had been when my dad secretly loaned Uncle Joe money from Mom and Dad’s joint savings account and then refused to tell my mom why.
Right after this incident a French guy named Jacques came to visit. He was a friend of a friend of Dad’s. My dad had just gone through major knee surgery and could barely move around, so he loaned Jacques a surfboard and called out instructions from the porch, using his crutch to guide Jacques to the takeoff spot. Dad didn’t have the strength to show Jacques around Malibu, so Mom took him to Point Dume—a chain of pristine coves—and to Alice’s restaurant on the pier, and to the Getty Museum. After Jacques went back to France Dad stopped coming home at night. This lasted a couple of weeks. Then he returned for a few days, until he finally moved his stuff into the cabin across the highway.
Mom started hanging out with a guy named Nick. Right from the get-go Nick liked to mix it up, which was the opposite of my dad, who was reluctant to fight with my mom. Nick and Mom had spectacular clashes in front of everyone on the beach. It wasn’t that abnormal really—a lot of people on Topanga Beach who were married were kissing other people, fighting with their new boyfriends or girlfriends, and suddenly moving into other houses. It was an incomplete picture of what went wrong between Mom and Dad. Something was obviously broken, that’s all I knew, and was forced to accept it.
Mom parked the car in the garage and I immediately found my three-legged golden retriever Sunshine. She was waiting on the outdoor walkway that ran along the side of our house. Sunny and I ran to the porch, jumped over our beach stairs and ambled up the beach to the point—a curve of sand that came to a tip at the north end of the cove.
Two girls my age cantered their horses bareback through the waves washing along the shore. I held Sunny so she wouldn’t spook the horses. The girls lived up the canyon in the Rodeo Grounds, below where my dad lived, and as always we just
waved to each other. The horses kicked up salt water onto the girls’ legs, which shimmered in the late afternoon light.
When they disappeared up the mouth of the canyon I threw Sunny’s stick into the surf. A blond dude with a long beard dressed in full Indian garb did a rain dance toward the setting sun. He reminded me of Charles Manson, who was always hanging around the beach when I was a baby, and used to serenade my aunt while she rocked me in her arms on our beach stairs.
Good thing I never went up to that commune he kept talking about, my aunt said when she told me the story.
After dinner I tried to fall asleep to the crashing waves. I read the Hardy Boys to help take my mind off the trip to Mexico. Later I woke and made a tent with my covers and played a spy game, radioing secret information to headquarters via the rusted posts of my old brass bed. Sunshine lay curled at the foot of the bed and guarded our hideout. I petted her and told her about how I hated having to surf, hating not being able to play all weekend like the kids in the Pacific Palisades.
I often complained to my dad about not living in a neighborhood. He told me that one day I’d realize how lucky I was living right on the beach, and that since Eleanor (my unofficial godmother) lived in the Palisades and I got to stay there sometimes, I was doubly lucky.
But she doesn’t have a pool, I said, and Dad rebutted that I had the biggest pool in the world right in my own front yard.
Before I was born my mom used to work at Eleanor’s nursery school, Hill’n Dale, and my parents became close friends with Eleanor and her husband Lee. I started going to Hill’n Dale when I was three and Eleanor immediately lavished me with attention. We have the same birthday, May 30, she liked to tell
everyone. Ever since the first grade I had walked the two blocks from grammar school to Hill’n Dale, hanging out there until my mom or dad picked me up after work. All those years of seeing Eleanor practically every day made me think of her as
my other mother
, and I told people so.
Morning brought good news—my dad had to prepare a malpractice case with his law partner Al before leaving for Mexico so I wouldn’t have to surf this weekend, and Sandra would be joining my dad on the trip to Mexico. The odds of not having to go were now heavily in my favor. I was so dizzy with relief that I didn’t realize what Nick had in store for me until it was too late. Nick had been living with my mom for several years by now and he talked about
and said that Charley, the only boy my age still living on the beach, was coming over. I was preoccupied, basking in a heaven devoid of Mexico and teeming with sleepovers and birthday parties and frosted cakes.
The sand was hot and white. It was August and the fog was long gone and the sun beat down. Nick and his friend Mickey drank beer and drew a circle in the sand.
That’s the boxing ring, said Nick. Don’t step outside the ring or you’ll be automatically disqualified.
Everybody said Nick looked like Paul Newman. He was taller than my dad and didn’t have broad shoulders—I had decided it was because he didn’t surf. He was different from my dad in a lot of other ways too. He would never dance at parties like my dad always did. And Nick didn’t play any instruments like my dad, or sing—stuff Dad learned to do when he was a child actor. Dad was in the classic
Cheaper by the Dozen
, acting in several films and TV shows through his early twenties. On a show called
Dad played a mechanic, which was funny because he
couldn’t fix anything, not even my bike. And I couldn’t imagine Nick running a summer cheerleading camp like my dad did. That’s how Dad met my mom—he was recruiting
to teach at his camp and my mom was staying with one of the song girls in an apartment in Westwood by UCLA. It was 1962. Dad had just resigned from the FBI and was working as an assistant U.S. attorney under Robert Kennedy. He and his friend Bob Barrow, who grew up near Dad in South Los Angeles, cooked up the idea of organizing a summer cheerleading camp as a way to make some extra money and meet college girls. Dad would teach the girls dance routines in the mornings before suiting up and going into the Department of Justice.
On their first date Dad took my mom to Topanga Beach. He played guitar for her and convinced her to paddle out surfing with him. They got married a year later, moving into a house on the beach.
Mickey helped Charley and me string up our boxing gloves. Mine had been acquired in a trade for my Raggedy Ann doll with a boy who was moving from the beach. This went down following a particularly tyrannical evening with Nick after which I had announced my desire to learn how to box. Then a few days later, as if to show that he was unfazed by my sudden urge to box—an obvious gesture meant to protest Nick’s drunken rages—Nick put together this little bout between Charley and me.
It’ll be good for you, Norman, he said.
While Mickey secured the knots Charley and I craned our necks to peek around the flat-topped dirt knoll on the point.
Stop leering at the naked ladies and put your mouthpieces in, said Nick.
The nude beach was just around the dirt knoll and both Charley and I quickly denied any interest in girls.
Good, said Nick. You know what’s behind those tits and asses?
Charley and I looked up at Nick, waiting with our eyes and ears wide open.
Mothers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters and cousins that you have to deal with, he said. Weddings and anniversary parties. Endless headaches.
Charley and I waited for more, but that was it.
You’ll get it one day, said Nick. Mouthpieces in?
Yeah, I said.
Good. Your mom would have a complete nervous breakdown if you lost your teeth.
Mickey was chugging down his beer. He looked back into the cove at my house where my mom was watering plants on the deck.
Okay, said Nick. Keep your hands up and keep your feet moving.
Like Muhammad Ali, I said.
Nick smiled and I could smell the beer on his breath.
Yeah, just like Ali.
Charley didn’t look nervous at all. He was two inches taller and about ten pounds heavier. We circled each other and I danced like Ali. I saw some openings between Charley’s glove and shoulder, enough room to punch him in the jaw, except my arm just lurched instead of shooting forward to punch him. Again, I tried to swing but my muscles tightened and I had to break through their resistance to throw a punch that ended up as a fly swat across Charley’s forehead. Then all of a sudden he came at me. I put my hands up and he hit me in the stomach and I lost my breath and turned sideways and he hit me in the nose. A stinger went down my body to my feet. It wasn’t as simple as pain. It was liquid and it was cool like the ethyl alcohol that my dad used to wash out his ears after surfing. My eyes watered and instantly I was scared shitless. I looked around for help and Nick was squinting at me, lips pursed.
Ready to quit? he said.
I nodded. Charley threw up his arms in victory.
I put out my hands for Nick to unlace my gloves and he rubbed his forehead and sighed and put down his beer. Charley moved with a confident swagger and Mickey complimented him on his toughness, and that brought to mind my crying over my Raggedy Ann doll the night after I made the trade. I had wanted it back. It was the only toy left from when my parents lived in the same house. But it was too late—the boy and my doll were already in another city.
Charley got his gloves off first and said he was going skateboarding with Trafton and Shane and a few of the other legends on the beach. They were going up to Coastline where the pavement was new and the streets were wide and steep and rolled on forever.
Your mom specifically forbids that, Norman, interrupted Nick before I could make my plea to tag along with Charley.
I looked at him and I felt my face turn red and my chin quiver.
It’s too dangerous, he added.
I touched my nose and it was sore and he seemed pleased that it didn’t make sense—allowing me to box but not go skateboarding.
Life is a long series of readjustments, he said, patting me on the back as if to soften the unfairness. Better to get used to it now, Norman, he added.
Nick and Mickey went ahead of us, carrying the gloves and mouthpieces so that we wouldn’t lose them. I followed Charley to his house near the point.
You can come along if you want to, he said.
I didn’t need his approval, I knew all those guys too, but I pretended to be grateful.
EAR THE TOP
of Ontario Peak I woke up. Feathers rocked from the sky and coated my face. I had been dreaming but could not remember the dream. Were Dad and I just gliding side by side down a powder run?
Wind rustled through the spruce needles, so pure and uncluttered that I wondered if I was still asleep. I was kinked over and a section of the instrument panel crossed the foreground. One corner of the panel sunk into fog like an upended ship. A few feet beyond it was a big tree trunk. It crossed the other way, making an X with the panel. It was impossible to know where the horizon line was and my eyes strained to orient myself. Then the fog thinned like a flock of birds lifting and one of the airplane wings was stuck into the tree trunk. All these weird mashed-together pictures did not add up to anything that made sense. Chaotic swirls of snow fell sideways and back upward then disappeared behind a whitewash of incoming fog.
I tried to breathe but couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. My stomach was choked off by my seat belt, which strapped me into the seat. I called for my dad.
I can’t breathe, I bellowed. Dad I can’t breathe!
Pinned on my side by my seat, I couldn’t turn around to check on my dad and Sandra in the back. I went in and out of consciousness—like sinking into a murk of water and then suddenly rising to the top only to drop into the murk again. The whole thing is just a nightmare, I decided. A nonsense dream. Can’t wake up though.
I noticed something beyond the shattered cockpit—the pilot seemed sprawled out as if diving backward and there appeared to be a bloody cavity where his nose should have been. A reef of fog swallowed him before I could be sure.
I tried to breathe again. Just a speck of oxygen. My hand fumbled for the seat belt buckle and my blue mid-top Vans squeaked against the snow. The buckle released and my lungs burned with cold air. Dad will fix this, I told myself. He’ll turn everything right side up again.
I felt myself winding down, an engine sputtering. My head was light, eyes blurry. I had no idea where I was. Eyes began to close and I surrendered.